Correctional officers and Steve Carter, an expert witness for plaintiffs in a recently decided class action lawsuit against the S.C. Department of Corrections on behalf of inmates with severe mental illnesses, inspects cells at Perry Correctional Institution in November 2010.
Jerome Laudman wasn’t known for being an aggressive or violent prisoner, but he had been a difficult one. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, mental retardation and a speech impediment, he could test a correctional officer’s last nerve.
Given Laudman’s mental state, it’s easy to imagine that something might have upset him back in February 2008 at Lee County Correctional Institution, causing him to make the grunting noises that discomfited and annoyed the correctional officers — probably prompting one of them to make Laudman somebody else’s problem over in the dreaded Super-Max unit.
As many a mentally ill inmate could attest, inside the South Department of Corrections, getting under the wrong man’s skin can result in brutal consequences. The above explanation is as good as any provided to an SCDC investigator as to how Laudman ended up sprawled amid human excrement and urine, smeared and pooled on the floor of his filthy, frigid cell.
Judging by the grisly evidence entered into trial for a recently decided class-action lawsuit filed against SCDC on behalf of inmates with severe mental illnesses, conditions like Laudman’s were a hallmark of daily life for many of the plaintiffs.
Laudman’s Super-Max cell likely was vile when he got there — Super-Max isn’t known for housekeeping — but when neighboring inmates summoned prison personnel to check on him 11 days later by banging on the walls and hollering, the odor from his cell was so rank that corrections officers refused to enter. Opening the cell door, they saw Laudman on the cement floor — inert, unresponsive, naked, facedown in feces and vomit, drawing shallow breaths amid Styrofoam plates of rotten moldy food.
Disgusted, the guards and even the nurses refused to touch Laudman, according to court records. Instead, they sent for inmates to get him on a gurney. By the time Laudman arrived at Sumter’s Tuomey Hospital, his core temperature indicated hypothermia. A few hours later, he died of a heart attack.
The Laudman case is only one of many ugly episodes that Circuit Court Judge Michael Baxley considered in adjudicating this lawsuit, which he described as the “most troubling” case he’d presided over during his 14 years on the bench. After eight years of bruising litigation, drawn out by the plaintiffs’ voluminous requests for records and depositions and the defendants’ resistance to providing them, Baxley ruled this month in favor of the plaintiffs — the nonprofit Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Inc. and approximately 3,500 severely mentally ill inmates — and issued a detailed rebuke to SCDC. Additionally, he ordered the agency to follow remedial steps for it to achieve constitutional compliance.
In the Laudman case, several lines of inquiry went nowhere for SCDC’s post-mortem investigation. In addition to not accounting for Laudman’s presence in Super-Max, Lee prison personnel couldn’t explain why Laudman’s mental health counselor hadn’t been notified of his transfer or any unusual behavior on Laudman’s part; nor could they explain why the video of his transfer, mandated by agency policy, went blank after the first few minutes; nor could they explain why the prisoner — who had not been deemed a suicide risk — had been stripped of his clothes, blanket and mattress.
Later the investigator found evidence that a guard had physically abused a docile Laudman during his transfer to Super-Max. The investigator also noted that once Laudman had been extracted from his Super-Max cell and sent to Tuomey, someone had hung around and scrubbed it before SCDC’s investigator could arrive to document the incriminating mess. Inmates pointed fingers, but no officials copped to a cover-up.
While some of the other plaintiffs’ stories might match Laudman’s in terms of wretched or horrifying conditions, it’s hard to imagine one more emblematic of South Carolina’s traditional indifference toward the mistreatment of the incarcerated insane. That indifference remains the greatest obstacle to providing treatment that is morally, medically and constitutionally sound — and, as Judge Baxley points out, we ignore these constitutional violations at our own risk.
“What happens at the Department of Corrections impacts all of us, whether it is from the discharge of untreated seriously mentally ill individuals from prison into the general population, or tremendously increased costs for treatment and care that might have been prevented, or the needless increase in human suffering when force is used to replace medical care,” Baxley wrote in his Jan. 8 decision. “The decisions of our Courts reflect the values of our society. To that end, our state can no longer tolerate a mental health system at [SCDC] that has broken down due to lack of finances and focus.”
The Decline of Mental Health Care in Prisons
For a decade before attorneys for Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough filed the class action lawsuit against SCDC in 2005, reports of atrocities had been leaking from the prisons. South Carolina was not remarkable at first. Corrections departments all over the country had absorbed greater numbers of mentally ill inmates, the result of the well-meaning policy of deinstitutionalization over several decades, and few were equipped or motivated to handle it.
“Back in the ‘70s, we started emptying state [mental] hospitals and trying to treat people in the communities, which was not a bad idea, but we didn’t put any money in it, and we didn’t have any place to house the people when they went back into the community,” says Bill Lindsey, director for South Carolina’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “We really went from warehousing people in the state hospitals to warehousing people in the jails and prisons. That’s all over the country.”
In addition to that national policy shift, Republican David Beasley became South Carolina’s governor in 1995 and appointed a tough-talking Texan named Michael Moore to head up his Corrections Department. Advocates and a former agency employee trace the decline of SCDC’s mental health care to Moore’s arrival. They say he slashed spending for services that he considered frivolous, including basic mental health care, and that the department has never recovered.
The Atlantic reported that Moore cut mental health personnel and programs that would benefit the mentally ill. “He did a lot of good things, but for some reason he just felt the mental health program was coddling the inmates more than it was truly treatment,” says a former employee who served under Moore and spoke on condition of anonymity.
According to plaintiffs’ attorney Dan Westbrook, the final straw came in the form of a 2003 S.C. Department of Mental Health report that sounded the alarm over the mental health care crisis in South Carolina’s prisons.
“It was a damning report — and yet nothing happened,” Westbrook recalls. At that point, the Nelson Mullins pro bono team began its investigation in earnest, not knowing the extent of the horrors they would find.
The Filth and the Fury
Theodore Robinson was one of the suit’s first plaintiffs. Serving a life sentence for killing both his parents after weeks off his medication, he has paranoid schizophrenia and is known for drinking his own urine and speaking incoherently. Like many with his affliction, he is visited by hallucinations and delusions. He believes doctors perform secret surgeries on him when he sleeps.
Theodore Robinson, who is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, spent 12 years in solitary confinement. SCDC released him from solitary 15 days after plaintiffs’ attorneys filed the lawsuit against the agency in 2005.
Before the suit was filed, Robinson had spent 12 straight years in solitary confinement, leaving his cell for maybe an hour a day if he were lucky. Fifteen days after the suit was filed, SCDC released Robinson from solitary. At that point, the Nelson Mullins legal team knew it was on to something.
In addition to excrement and urine, other hallmarks of life for the unquiet mind in prison include voices (audio hallucinations) and cutting (self-mutilation). The former usually urges on the latter, and both often precede Crisis Intervention, a dreaded form of solitary confinement theoretically reserved for inmates considered at risk of harming themselves or others; however, evidence indicates that CI is often employed to punish inmates.
In a 2010 interview with Nelson Mullins paralegal Tammie Pope, inmate Marvin Wells described his audio hallucinations, the “demons” that visited almost daily.
“I sometimes hear cyclic voices, but when I go psychotic I hear, instead of those cyclic voices, when I’m in the full psychotic mode I hear like people shouting. I might hear [them] cussing me out or calling me a name like the ‘n’ word or something like that,” Wells said.
Marvin Wells is visited by “demons” daily.
“One time when I was psychotic I was feeling like a lion licking my foot and just deduced it was a lion because I smelled it and I can hear it and I can feel the tongue licking my feet. I actually have what they call tactile hallucinations.”
In a 2010 interview conducted by Pope, inmate Jonathan Roe explained the coping mechanism that landed him in so much trouble:
The best way I can explain it is when I get really stressed out I get manic. My mind races, I can’t sleep and I just feel like a ball of pressure is on me.
Cutting is the only thing that I’ve found that’s an effective release for that. When I cut it’s kind — I guess I could explain it as being like a euphoric feeling. And then after it’s gone I just don’t feel stressed out anymore. I can sleep for days at a time without medication and I just feel better after I cut. But they’ve even started punishing us for that.
Now if you cut, they will gas you and strap you to a restraint chair for anywhere from four to eight hours. They gassed (pepper spray) me and pushed the restraint chair to the middle of the bed and shackled my arms to each leg of the bed and left me there for eight hours.
Jonathan Roe cuts himself for relief when he grows manic.
As Roe explains, cutters usually aren’t suicidal, just looking for release, but that hasn’t stopped SCDC from treating them as suicide risks.
Once on Crisis Intervention, inmates are stripped of clothes and mattresses (occasionally they get a suicide-proof blanket) and placed in cells often caked with human waste and blood. They are to sleep on cold cement or steel floors. One resourceful inmate was known to rip up the Styrofoam plates his food was delivered on and amass the shreds into a meager, makeshift mattress. They’re denied showers, regular meals, visitation rights, telephone rights and access to their counselors and group therapy.
For three years spanning 2008 into 2010, correctional officers at Lieber Correctional Institute in Ridgeville, occasionally with consent from mental health staff, used showers and “rec cages” and other alternative venues for holding prisoners on CI. Few of them featured toilets, leading to more excrement and urine where it doesn’t belong.
Inmate Jamal Rivers described conditions on CI as “just gooey stuff all over everything.” He continued, “They refused to clean that stuff up. They made me sit in those cells. They turned the toilet water off, the sink water off. Denied me showers. Denied me mattresses in there. Denied me underwear and footwear. He said guards would remove him from his cell and send in an inmate to mop it out with cleaning chemicals. “They send me back in there barefeet and then it soak in the pores of my feet,” he says.
Tammie Pope of Nelson Mullins law firm conducts an interview with inmate Jamal Rivers at SCDC’s Gilliam Psychiatric Hospital.
Heavy-handed treatment of the mentally ill has become routine. Data show that a mentally ill inmate is more than twice as likely to be placed in solitary as a regular inmate and that he will receive a disproportionately longer sentence. He also might encounter bullying from guards consider him a nuisance.
“There are certainly officers who tease them, make fun of them because of their mental illnesses,” says Pope, the Nelson Mullins paralegal. “We heard stories about officers feeding this guy, throwing his tray on the ground and telling him to eat like a dog. The level of education of some of the officers is not the highest.”
Jamal Rivers’ damaged eyes are evidence of that. On Sept. 2, 2010, he told Pope about being strapped into the restraint chair, a controversial device associated with a multitude of jailhouse abuses, and sprayed in the eyes with a chemical control agent.
“Gas get in my eye, they refused to wash it out,” Rivers said. “Now I have eye damage severely. Right now and to this day I’m in a position of MUSC hospital have done send paperwork for SCDC requesting to see me in reference to having to be doing corrective surgery on my eyes and stuff like that.”
Baxley’s ruling noted that, contrary to SCDC’s policy, correctional officers routinely spray chemical munitions in greater amounts and at closer range than the manufacturer recommends.
While these are just a handful of representative anecdotes, Baxley took a more methodical approach to ruling on the case. Specifically, he found that SCDC had failed to meet minimal standards of care in the following areas:
Screening and evaluation to identify inmates in need of mental health care;
Mental health treatment that involves more than solitary confinement, use of force and close supervision;
Employment of a sufficient number of trained mental health professionals;
Maintenance of accurate, complete and confidential mental health treatment records;
Timely, reliable, supervised administration of psychotropic medications, followed by appropriate evaluations; and
A basic program to identify, treat, and supervise inmates at risk for suicide.
As Baxley demonstrated in his order — which documented years of inner-agency reports and evaluations going back to 1999 — SCDC has long been aware of and unmoved by its failings in the field of mental health care.
“Rather than accept the obvious at some point and come forward in a meaningful way to try and improve its mental health system, Defendants have fought this case tooth and nail — on the facts, on the law, on the constitutional issues, portraying itself as beleaguered by the burdensomeness of Plaintiff’s discovery, and generally harrumphed by the invasive nature of Plaintiffs’ counsels’ tactics and strategies,” Baxley wrote.
Later, he added: “The hundreds of thousands of tax dollars spent defending this lawsuit, at trial and most likely now on appeal, would be better expended to improve mental health services delivery at SCDC.”
Sure enough, SCDC announced plans for appeal on Jan. 8, the same day Baxley issued his ruling, and has since claimed great strides in improving its treatment of mentally ill prisoners.
Cell block life for the mentally ill at Perry Correctional Institution.
While a spokesman for the agency says SCDC isn’t prepared to address the grounds of its planned appeal, he offered examples of corrective steps being taken by the agency in the wake of the trial. They include collaborating with the Department of Mental Health in evaluating SCDC’s policies, enlisting the aid of the National Alliance for Mental Illness in strengthening staff training, hiring more mental health personnel, training staff to become licensed mental health counselors and developing special programs for mentally ill inmates, in addition to other initiatives.
But SCDC is just an agency, beholden to the S.C. General Assembly for its funding and the governor for its administration, and presumably looking for cues from its bosses.
With that in mind, Gov. Nikki Haley’s lead has been dismissive. She’s downplayed Baxley’s ruling as outdated and pertaining to ancient history.
“That was a case from 10 years ago that related to about five to 10 years prior to that ... We have come a long way in 10 years when those findings were found,” The Greenville News quoted Haley saying. Haley’s office didn’t respond to Free Times’ request for further comment, as is its custom.
Meanwhile, leadership in the General Assembly has taken a more concerned stance in the wake of the ruling.
“Why not be the best when it comes to treating the mentally ill? It saves money in the long run,” says Sen. Mike Fair (R-Greenville), who chairs the Senate’s Corrections and Penology Committee. “I choose to believe everybody involved in this is reasonable. Instead of spending all that money on going to court, let’s spend it on fixing the problem,” he says.
Fair adds that Baxley’s thorough rebuke of SCDC had certainly gotten legislators’ attention, and that members of both the House and Senate are studying the situation and expecting an increased budget request to come in from SCDC.
On the other hand, Fair echoes SCDC’s assertion that Baxley might have overstepped his authority by ordering improvements at SCDC that require more spending. Budget priorities, he says, are in the General Assembly’s purview.
Baxley anticipated this criticism in his ruling, noting that legal precedent has recognized “grey areas” and “overlap of authority” in the separation of powers doctrine. He also cited several precedents showing that “courts may not allow constitutional violations to continue simply because a remedy could involve intrusion into the realm of prison administration” and that the “cost of protecting a constitutional right cannot justify its total denial.”
As for the rosy claims of Haley and her Corrections Department, advocates for the mentally ill called them out last week.
“Statements have been made since Judge Michael Baxley’s ruling that the S.C. Department of Corrections has taken measures to correct serious deficiencies in the treatment of inmates with mental illness. At trial, the department took the same position,” wrote Gloria Prevost, director of Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, and Joy Jay, director of Mental Health America of South Carolina. “Judge Baxley’s order, which was handed down January 8, 2014, specifically rejected these contentions, calling them ‘half‐hearted measures’ and mere ‘band aids,’ many of which were instituted ‘shortly before and even during trial.’ He stated that the measures touted by the department are ‘neither reasonable, timely nor effective.’”
Prevost and Jay went on to rebut Haley’s portrayal of Baxley’s ruling as obsolete by presenting a timeline of the evidence he based his ruling upon. The evidence involved incidents occurring between 2008 and 2012, most in 2011 — nowhere near 10 years ago.
Speaking by telephone Sunday, Jay said, “If Haley could just go in there for a few days to see what the real world is in isolation and lockdown, it’s so blatant that she would have to see it’s not ancient history.”
Clearly, the problems for mentally ill prisoners in South Carolina predate Haley, spanning the terms of several governors and SCDC directors. But with Baxley’s Jan. 8 ruling, all eyes are now on the Haley administration to see whether it will be up to the challenge of fixing the mess it has inherited.
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